Fleet Foxes Explain the Terrifying Near-Death Experience That Ushered in Their Joyful New Chapter

The surprise album 'Shore' is here now — and Robin Pecknold says even more songs are on the way
Fleet Foxes Explain the Terrifying Near-Death Experience That Ushered in Their Joyful New Chapter
Shore is a Fleet Foxes album like no other — and not just because they have surprise-released it to coincide with the autumn equinox. Rather, this is a cathartic and uplifting left turn from the typically stately indie folk band, with brisk tunes that breeze by like rock songs and often clock in at around the three-minute mark.

In order to get to this place of positivity, bandleader Robin Pecknold first had to wade through some murky waters — quite literally. The album's title and imagery stem from a traumatic experience he had while surfing in California in 2017. He tells Exclaim!, "I got caught in a rip current and I was pretty far from the sand. I really thought I was going to drown swimming back in and had to really struggle to get back to shore. After that experience, just the relief I felt being in the sand, I was like, I thought, the next album's called Shore and it will be this relieving, joyous, glad-to-be-alive kind of vibe. That became the frame that was unchangeable, even though the music or the lyrics weren't really there yet."

While Pecknold worked on the album over much of the last few years — he even revealed the album's title and much of the tracklist a year ago via an Instagram Story on his personal account — the lyrics were recorded only in the last few months, which is what explains the references to the April 2020 deaths of Bill Withers and John Prine in the album's second track, "Sunblind." The first song on the record to feature Pecknold's vocals, "Sunblind" eulogizes the likes of Prine, Withers, David Berman and Richard Swift, along with Pecknold's influences Judee Sill, Elliott Smith, Arthur Russell, Ian Curtis, Jeff Buckley and Otis Redding.

Pecknold's opening lyrics are "For Richard Swift," in memory of the record producer and multi-instrumentalist who died in 2018 at the age of 41 due to complications from alcohol addiction. But aside from that, he didn't have most of the album's lyrics until several months ago. "That was in place for a long time but I didn't have a good chorus," says Pecknold now about the line. "I was sitting on a pile of instrumentals with no lyrics back in February, March. And I had a difficult time, I was tired of working on the record, working on the music, and hadn't really thought through what I wanted to say lyrically, and how that would interact with the music I was writing for it."

But over the span of three weeks in June, Pecknold finally recorded his vocals, placed them atop the largely completed instrumentals, and ushered Shore out into the world as quickly as possible.

The result is an album that deliberately grapples with many of the issues that mark our present day — isolation, privilege, alienation, eulogizing the dead and the daily struggles to remain hopeful throughout. Returning to the breezy folk-rock structures from the project's self-titled 2008 breakthrough (this time around leaning more on the rock side than folk), Shore feels like that first gasp after almost drowning, the sharp, life-giving breath that clears out the panic and fear.

The memories of Prine, Withers, Berman and more linger throughout the album, itself a document of the hazy expanse of human memory, and the need to be remembered after one passes away. It was influenced by Pecknold's grandfather, who recently had a stroke. "There was a period of five days or so where it seemed like his memory was just gone," reveals Pecknold. "He was physically going to be fine, but we were calling him and FaceTiming him and not getting a reaction. We were all processing that possibility. He's recovered his memory now and remembers us and he's much better now, but I was writing the lyrics while this was happening. I'd already been writing the songs about basically keeping people alive in memory."

It found Pecknold grappling with how he wanted to be remembered, and the legacies of his musical heroes. "I was a huge Elliott Smith fan as a teenager. I was on his message boards and trading bootlegs of live shows a year or so before he died. Looking forward to From a Basement on a Hill so much. In addition to everyone, but over the years, I wish Elliott Smith was still alive. What would that world look like? The best you can do in spite of that is make stuff that keeps his point of view alive. Just this magic space for mythmaking and lionizing people and carrying them forward and keeping their stories alive."

While Shore is out in the world now (along with its accompanying short film), this 15-track album is referred to as the "Rising Quarter Phase," and may not actually be the full version of the album, according to Pecknold. While previous Fleet Foxes albums have featured contributions from Pecknold's touring bandmates, COVID-19 restrictions meant they couldn't contribute to Shore in the same way, which resulted in the creation of a new set of nine, as-yet-unreleased compositions, that serve as a companion to Shore.

"It's gonna be two songs each with those four guys," says Pecknold, referring to Fleet Foxes members Morgan Henderson, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo and Skyler Skjelset, "and one song with a different thing, and that gets it up to 24 songs total. Potentially, these songs will go inside of Shore, inside the tracklist and not at the end, sequenced in a way where each song is assigned to an hour of the day. There's no first or last song, it's structured like a clock.

"I was imagining it as there's a 15-song version of Shore and a 24-song version that comes out next year, maybe. When there's a tour possible, there's this expanded version that comes out. Hopefully that pans out."

Listen to the "Rising Quarter Phase" of Shore below.

The vinyl and CD editions of Shore will arrive on February 5 via ANTI-, and you can pre-order the album now.